It’s Heathers meets The Purge when a town-wide data leak means four teen girls have to rise up against slut-shaming, hate, and toxic masculinity. Get ready for Assassination Nation, the first film in an exclusive partnership from Refinery29 and Neon.
“I can keep going,” Odessa Young tells the photographer at our late August shoot in a decrepit former rectory in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
She’s just about the only one. The temperature outside is pushing 102 degrees, and the room has no air-conditioning, only a dinky fan on its last legs. The rest of us are sweating through our clothes, standing as still as possible in hope of catching a stray wisp of lukewarm air. But Young, weighed down in what would be ideal late fall boho attire — brown suede jacket, cream lace peasant skirt, and over-the-knee patent boots — wants to nail the shot.
The 20-year-old star of Assassination Nation doesn’t half-ass anything. Not a precarious pose she adopts at the photographer’s request: perched, in heels, on the arm-rests of an old chair (“Yeah, let’s get on the chair!”); not our interview, where she considers every answer carefully and speaks until she’s clear her intended meaning has come across (“I’m taking this waaay too seriously, aren’t I?”); and not her career, which is taking off in ways she never could have anticipated.
The Sydney, Australia native has been acting since she was 11 years old. At 17, she dropped out of high school to pursue acting full-time. That same year, she was dubbed the “It Girl” of the 2015 Venice Film Festival, where she was promoting two feature films, Looking for Grace, and The Daughter. The latter earned her an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Award, the country’s equivalent of an Oscar. At 18, she was the youngest-ever recipient. She’s starred in two Australian TV series, High Life, and When The Street Lights Go On. And now, she’s poised for a breakout in America, thanks to her performance in Assassination Nation, a modern take on the Salem witch hunt in the wake of a mass internet hack, directed by Sam Levinson. Later this year, she’ll co-star with Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Charlie Hunnam in A Million Little Pieces, director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of James Frey’s controversial 2003 addiction “memoir” that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.
She’s having a late dinner when we speak on the phone a week after the shoot, having just wrapped a day of filming Shirley, a movie about the horror writer Shirley Jackson, in upstate New York. Directed by Josephine Decker, the film boasts a cast that includes Elisabeth Moss (who plays Jackson) and Michael Stuhlbarg. Young plays Rose, a young pregnant woman who finds herself embroiled in dark, dramatic events that become fodder for Jackson’s next novel. It’s a hefty part, and speaks to Young’s desire for roles that push her out of her comfort zone. It’s the same trait that pushed her to take on the role of Lily in Assassination Nation, a film that opens with no less than 27 trigger warnings, including “homophobia,” “guns,” “racism,” and “toxic masculinity.”
“There was no other option than to try as hard as I could to do it, because it was so mind-blowing,” Young says in between bites of a “big, baaaad burrito.” “It’s just that feeling of ‘Oh, I know exactly how to do this, and I’m going to show them that nobody will do it as good as me.’”
Assassination Nation premiered at Sundance in January, and will be released in cinemas 19 October. With violence, gore, and graphic sexual content (although not much sex itself), it is not for the fainthearted. The film focuses around protagonist and narrator Lily (Young), and her three best friends, Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), teenage girls living in the idyllic suburb of Salem, state unknown. They are a parent’s worst nightmare. They casually talk about oral sex, take hundreds of nude selfies, drink, smoke, and uniformly wear the kind of high-waisted short shorts that only Kendall Jenner can pull off — but so what? This is what society has taught them to do for approval. It’s not their fault they’re sexualized, so why not lean into it?
Like most Gen Z high school seniors, Lily doesn’t think twice about her online presence, including the secret affair that she’s been carrying on with an older married man via text. It’s all as natural as breathing. But when a hacker starts leaking Salemites’ information — dirty secrets, venomous words, porn histories, basically everything you most want to keep private — the town’s placid veneer of respectability dissolves into flames and gunfire. (And blood. Lots and lots of blood.) It’s Purge night meets #MeToo when the mob eventually turns their anger against Lily and her friends, who have to fight for their survival by any means possible.
Young’s performance carries the film. She’s raw and intense, skilfully depicting the anger, vulnerability, and confusion of a young woman who has been repeatedly told that she’s worthless unless she’s desired, but who is reviled when she takes ownership of that sexuality. And when she decides enough is enough, watch out.
“You do shine a mirror on an audience when you bring their worst nightmares to life,” Young says. “Which is hypersexual teenage girls actually rising up against the shit that’s been put on them.”
Young and her co-stars shot the film in New Orleans in 2016, before the presidential election, and before the #MeToo movement started gaining traction. But Levinson’s twist on slasher revenge films like Scream and Friday The 13th, a genre that has traditionally been harmful to women, resonated with audiences at Sundance midnight screenings, primed for a movie that reflected the fury they felt at the status quo. Neon bought the distribution rights for more than $10 million, one of the biggest deals at the festival this year.
“You could feel the audience loving the girls,” Young says. “And that was something that I only realised was really important to me during the screening. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe the audience members won’t like these characters, you know? There was something really beautiful about the first cheer that we got.”
Still, Young admits she was initially hesitant about whether or not to take on the controversial project. “I remember being 14 or 15 years old and just feeling like the world was out to get you because every bit of media that you ever saw reflected how stupid the world saw you to be,” she says. “And when I got the script, I went ‘Okay, Assassination Nation is about four teenage girls who are obsessed with the internet, and it’s written and directed by a man.’ Like, ‘Oh, great. Here we go.’”
It’s only after she read through her audition scene, a frank and honest conversation about female sexuality and nudity (with some very explicit drawings) between 18-year-old Lily and her high school principal (played by Colman Domingo), that she was sold. “I loved feeling surprised at what the movie actually was, and what the script actually was,” she says. “It didn’t hate us, and it didn’t judge us.”
Still, the process of filming such an intense movie wasn’t without its challenges. Assassination Nation features the only scene that Young has ever had to stop shooting half-way through: a depiction of attempted rape that takes place towards the end of the film, when law and order has completely broken down in Salem.
“All of a sudden it got too real, and I needed a break,” she says. “There was a moment when I — not like I forgot where I was, but there was a moment where the anger and the emotion of the scene… It wasn’t real for me in the moment, but I could suddenly acknowledge how it could have been to someone else. And that just became so overwhelming that I had to stop. Poor [actor’s name redacted for spoilers] thought that he had fucked me up.”
Sexual violence isn’t the only terrifying aspects of this film. Assassination Nation’s take on internet privacy — or lack thereof — is frankly dizzying, largely because the events portrayed are completely plausible. I left the cinema in a state of hazy anxiety, and immediately changed every single password I could think of. But Young says the experience has given her an almost-freeing perspective on the subject.
“Maybe we do have to accept that privacy is dead,” she says. “Maybe we do have to accept that unless you completely remove yourself from it, it’s one of those things that can’t be half in or half out.”
It’s an unusual perspective in Hollywood, which has seen its fair share of damaging internet leaks in the last couple of years. In 2014, the Sony Pictures hack exposed countless confidential documents pertaining to everything from innocuous details about upcoming projects to very private emails between studio executives. It was through this hack that Jennifer Lawrence realised she was getting paid far less than her male co-stars, resulting in her celebrated essay for Lenny Letter. Earlier that year, Lawrence was one of several actresses to fall victim to a nude photo hack targeting female celebrities.
Young’s own Instagram feed is candid. With 3,380 followers (up from 420 in October 2017), she’s not an “influencer,” like, say, her co-stars. (For reference, Nef has 309,000 followers; Abra has 134,000; Waterhouse has 1.3 million.) It’s an unretouched, unrefined look at whatever happens to pique her interest. Stills from Thelma and Louise sit alongside pictures of tarot cards, inside jokes, and promotional photos for Assassination Nation. It’s the social media reflection of someone who is on the cusp of fame, but still has an identity that’s entirely her own.
But her reserved social media presence doesn't mean that she doesn’t feel deeply involved in internet culture and its celebrity obsessions. She’s fascinated by Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson’s romance. “I LOVE it,” she gushes. “Everybody should fall in love in a week and immediately get married and move in together. That’s just how I want life to be lived all the time. It makes so much sense to me. Good on them! If they want to invite me to their wedding, I would never say no. I just want to put that out there.”
During the shoot, Young sings along to the playlist — “Sweatpants” by Childish Gambino, “Win” by Jay Rock, “Barbie Dreams” by Nicki Minaj, “Faking It” by Calvin Harris ft. Kehlani & Lil Yachty — in between poses. She jokes around and scrunches up her face when she sings, eyes closed, head bobbing from side to side, the movie version of what a singing face looks like. But when the camera turns to her, she’s 100% on. Pretend to have a conversation with herself? No problem! She mouths lines she’s supposed to be learning for a scene as she strolls around the room. She moves with the confidence of someone who is thoroughly comfortable with their body. To the photographer’s surprise, she doesn’t even want to see the preview of the picture she’s just snapped. Once she’s in character, she stays there until she’s done.
But Young also knows how to take a break. “I’m a very lethargic person,” she jokes. “I’m really good at doing nothing. As long as I can be alone for at least an hour every day, I’m fine.”
Still, even her downtime is given the focused attention it deserves. She’s the kind of person who will read a book twice, back to back, underlining the ideas she wants to hold onto, and sit with just a little longer. She did that recently with 10:04 by Ben Lerner, and she takes the same approach with movies she likes. Her plan for the night after we hang up is to watch Bing Liu’s Minding The Gap for the second time. So, it’s no surprise that she’s taken the time to really ponder the meaning of her own roles, and the films she stars in.
Even before its theatrical release, Assassination Nation has emerged as a kind of symbol of female anger, of young women refusing to be boxed into the problems of the previous generation. As someone who is starting out in the industry during a moment of great upheaval and change, Young feels hopeful about where things are going. “I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to witness one of the greatest political movements in the history of art,” she says. “And that’s due to the people who paved the way. It’s my idols: it’s Cate Blanchett, it’s Frances McDormand, it’s Viola Davis — it’s these people that I’ve watched for years and been enamoured with who are not only my performance ideal but my political ideal, my people ideal too.”
But it’s her mother who truly hammered home the meaning of #MeToo for her in a conversation they had in late 2017. “She made me realise how worried she was about me living in Los Angeles alone, and being in this industry, and how she couldn’t have any control over who I was to meet,” Young says. “She just said that she had less worry now, that men would be held accountable for their actions, and she could see that happening. I really fucking admire my mother.”
As for the feeling of an emerging backlash to the progress that’s been made in the year since #MeToo, Young says she’s not worried. “I hate to say this, but I knew that was going to happen,” she says about recent events such as Louis C.K.’s recent return to the comedy stage. “Things do get momentum, and then they lose it, and then there’s another political movement to become involved with, there’s another horrifying thing. But the fact is, the door has been opened on the conversation that will never ever, ever close again, despite the fact that it feels like it is. Whatever backlash happens is material backlash. There will always be those superficial waves that come in and out and wash old ideas away and bring them in again, but there is actually a really solid foundation.”
That sense of community, of women helping women even in the most dire circumstances, is what she hopes people take away from Assassination Nation. “There are many, many people who are angry about the situation that we find ourselves in all the time. And that anger can be channeled into something that can be powerful, and change-making,” she says.
Hopefully it won’t come to the drastic circumstances that unfold in Levinson’s warped version of Salem. But after having quite literally fought her way through a crowd of men screaming for her character’s blood on screen, Young is ready for anything.
”I just feel really lucky to be a woman in this world right now,” she says. “Finally, we get to celebrate being a woman, as opposed to defend[ing] it.”